It’s been a long two years for a mayor unafraid to state his position on COVID-19: a rare, loud, pro-vaccine voice in what feels like an anti-vaccine, it’s-just-a-hoax world.

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It’s been a long two years for a mayor unafraid to state his position on COVID-19: a rare, loud, pro-vaccine voice in what feels like an anti-vaccine, it’s-just-a-hoax world.

Brandon Burley, 39, had been mayor of Morden for 16 months before COVID-19 came to Manitoba and the southern region quickly became associated with high test positivity, low vaccine uptake rates and scant adherence to public health orders.

He is quick to side with public health officials, and doesn’t hesitate to speak out against misinformation.

It started in an open letter published on his Facebook page in December 2020 to Lewis Weiss, reeve of the Rural Municipality of La Broquerie, after Weiss said publicly the virus was a hoax orchestrated by people in power.

"Neither of us have any proof of such a conspiracy, and if you do, (you) have a duty to provide proof commensurate to the claim," he wrote at the time.

Since then, his Facebook and Twitter accounts have remained steadfast in its messaging: COVID-19 is real, follow public health guidelines, and get vaccinated.

"If you believe that you’re a patriot or pro-freedom and have not been COVID-19 vaccinated, you’ve deceived yourself. Our national security depends on a healthy population, economy, and production capacity. Foreign disinformation was at an all-time high in (Canada) in 2020 re: COVID," Burley wrote in a tweet Nov. 8.

Five days earlier, he tweeted: "Have you lost friends from COVID? I’ve lost two. Get vaccinated."

“Would I trade my ability to use social media for having no social media available during this pandemic at all? Absolutely,” Burley told the Free Press in an interview. “Because I think social media hasn’t helped.” (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

“Would I trade my ability to use social media for having no social media available during this pandemic at all? Absolutely,” Burley told the Free Press in an interview. “Because I think social media hasn’t helped.” (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"Would I trade my ability to use social media for having no social media available during this pandemic at all? Absolutely," Burley told the Free Press in an interview. "Because I think social media hasn’t helped."

Despite that, he’s taken the opportunity to use the platform to dispel misinformation and attempt to balance out some of the anti-vax voices in the region. Morden, a city of about 8,700, is located some 12 kilometres west of the City of Winkler.

Outside of the public realm of social media, Burley has asked community members to send along any information they may have to support their anti-vax or COVID "truther" claims. He tries to get back to everyone with studies that dispel such claims, saying many people are persistent at finding new misinformation that supports their stance.

"What’s humorous to me as I look back through emails is how the narrative has changed. Every time the carpet is pulled out from under them, they find a new carpet to stand on," the mayor said.

"People stand there for the next five months, and just get in the way of progress, and then when they’re proven wrong then they’ll find the next reason to object. And that’s disheartening, obfuscation just for the point of obfuscation."

There’s been a cost. Earlier this year, people pulled up to his home while his family was outside and made threats. Recently, his daughter came home crying because one of her peers said their parents had come up with stories that ended with Burley being assassinated and encouraged other students to play a game where they came up with what superpowers they would use to kill him.

"My wife flipped out, and my daughter was inconsolable. So we had to have conversations with her to say, look, there are mechanisms in place to protect us, and there’s a lot of frustration and a lot of outrage, a lot of anger," Burley said.

"But I said there’s a silver lining — at least they thought they needed a superpower to take me out — and that at least brought a smile to her face."

Burley is not sure if he will run again in 2022.

"That’s a decision I’m going to have to make in the spring. I’ve got to talk to my kids, and probably go lay on a beach somewhere for two weeks before I make that decision," he said.

“It’s just been a long two years, and the willingness and the want is there. But I’ve got to think about my own mental health and the wellness of my family before I make that decision.” ‐ Morden mayor Brandon Burden

"It’s just been a long two years, and the willingness and the want is there. But I’ve got to think about my own mental health and the wellness of my family before I make that decision."

There’s a political cost, too, in terms of popularity and potential electability — "But if any leader during a global pandemic is concerned about losing favourability at the polls, I would say shame on them" — but there’s a chance to set a precedent.

"I’d say: set the tone, you have an unparalleled opportunity to set the tone for your municipality," Burley said when asked what he would say to other southern Manitoba municipal and political leaders who may be considering speaking up in favour of vaccination.

"And I think it goes beyond this, to churches, to community groups, anybody who has a circle or sphere of influence — set the tone. Actively engage with disinformation, do it kindly, but do it deliberately, do it purposefully, and do it with abandon."

malak.abas@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: malakabas_

Malak Abas

Malak Abas
Reporter

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.